What Is Often Unseen

This week on Twitter, there’s been an ongoing debate about mental health days and what qualifies one to take a mental health day, considering the burden that it may place on one’s colleagues.

First, let me begin by saying that it is not up to individuals, nor should it ever be, to be responsible for systems that are not able to incentivize or support enough substitute teachers to be present when teachers take time off. As an educational leader in a higher education setting, I recently had an instructor approach me and ask what would happen if she needed to leave a course mid-semester. I honestly didn’t know, but I told her, if that was the case we’d figure it out. She ended up staying as we talked through possible shift that could make the course workable for her to continue, but had she left, it would have been my responsibility to figure another arrangement to make sure that students got the instruction they needed. That’s my job as a leader, to support the instructors in my department and to make sure students are getting what they need, which is sometimes less than ideal, but we do the best we can in the circumstances that we have.

Beyond this, however, the conversation on mental health days was extremely triggering to me and it took me a few days to realize why. At first I thought it was because I am a fierce defender of teachers, particularly teachers with whom I’m personally connected and those who have shared their stories in my research, who are going through so much suffering right now.

And that’s true, that does upset me, but there is a very personal layer to this story as well.

I have always been a performer and someone who compartmentalizes. After my son was born, I went back to the classroom less than 4 weeks after his birth (when my sick time had been exhausted) because I was deeply concerned that the subs that my students had were not supporting their learning. I planned all the lessons while I was out, continued to grade work, and refused to consider temporary disability to stay home with him until he could get his two and four month vaccines before he went into daycare.

The week after he entered an infant daycare, he got extremely sick, and because I was poorly insured at the time, my entire income for the rest of the academic year went to paying his ER visit (on top of what it had cost of labor and delivery). At the time, I was also supporting my two older (adopted) daughters with the transition that came following my son’s birth. I was exhausted and began losing significant amounts of weight.

I put everyone ahead of myself, particularly my students & colleagues and my children. I normalized and justified this, but over time these choices had devastating consequences.

Two years later, after my oldest daughter had a serious mental health crisis, and I was trying to deal with a continually tenuous financial situation which led me to work my full time job and 4 additional part time gigs, the academic job market (and finishing a dissertation), a toddler, and a second teenager, I hit a wall.

I entered the hospital at an incredibly low weight and was admitted to an inpatient eating disorder treatment program, which after 10 days was stepped down to intensive outpatient treatment.

During this whole time, I was trying to keep teaching a university class (which the instructor of record pulled from me because I was hospitalized for the first section) and get back to my classroom as soon as I could despite a medical leave note that had me out for 10 weeks. I still tried to send lesson plans and keep up with my students. At the time, I let some follow me on Facebook, and I sent a notice to please try to be good for the subs and that I’d be back as soon as I could.

A parent saw my Facebook post and called the principal saying that if I was well enough to be on social media then surely, I wasn’t that sick and should have been at school teaching their child. The administration notified me that maybe I shouldn’t post anything while I was out.

I understand the parent’s concern. I know the kiddos in my class that year didn’t get my best, but I was completely devastated that a post made on social media, which was my only real connection to the world outside and my world (my students), had been taken to mean that I was fine, perfectly healthy, and faking my sickness to avoid teaching these children that I loved deeply. I was also so sad that I was being asked to take myself away from what had been a lifeline for me, during a time of extreme isolation.

At the time, I was incredibly mentally and physically vulnerable. The parent’s comment broke my heart and nearly broke my spirit. It could not have been further from the truth in characterizing how invested I was in my profession and my classroom. It has been nearly 15 years since that incident, but I still remember it. I was so sick, but to the outside world, or at least to this parent, it seemed like I was sitting on social media, chilling out, and collecting a paycheck while those around me tried to cover the slack I had left behind.

We don’t always know people’s stories. We don’t have a right to them.

But we can hold space for the humanity of teachers who are trying their best to stay in this profession and maintain their love for teaching, students, and education generally. We can come from a place that assumes that most people are trying the very best that they can with what resources they have in the moment that they make choices. Sure, there will always be counterexamples, but I believe that they are exceptions rather than the rule.

I hope we’ll move away from shame culture and assumptions based on single social media posts and towards building sustainable educational systems that affirm the humanity of everyone who is within them. But it’s much harder to build when we feel broken, when trust is broken, and when you are building on a foundation that is cracked, or when we continue to hold on to being right about a person or people instead of trying to see their humanity.

Let’s hold on to each other, take care of one another and give one another the space and trust to know that we’re really always just trying to do the best we can.

We are very much imperfect, but we are trying

Tonight, we celebrated my son’s 17th birthday which was earlier this week.

My son is an extraordinary person.

He was born an old soul and has always been ahead of his time in both wisdom and depth.

He and I share an inability to do less than our best and a sense that when we give less than 100% to anything, we are letting others, and more importantly, ourselves down.

Even though others encourage us to give less, it leaves us feeling like everything is getting short-shrift, like we are letting everyone down, and like we really need to do better in our lives.

It is quite something when your children reflect the hardest parts of yourself back to you.

Tonight, my son started his birthday dinner saying that he needed to do better at surviving. He was near tears. He has been like this a lot lately.

I have been worried, but much more than that, I have been sad, that someone who is such an incredible human being would feel such a depth of despair.

But also, I understand.

So I asked, “Is there anything we can take off your plate? Is there anything you feel like you’d want to give up?”

He named a few things. One is not for now, and can be pushed back a few months until he feels like he can give more of himself. One is perhaps not for ever, something that he tried because he loved, but which morphed into something that felt more like an obligation than joy.

I see his potential in all the things, so in some ways, I could see why he didn’t even want to say aloud these things. He was worried he would disappoint those who had invested in him, those in his community, us. He was choosing to continually disappoint himself (not having the time, energy, or strength to give his all) to avoid disappointing everyone else.

He is not a kid who gives things up easily, and he is someone who has always been cautious with his time. But school is a lot, and between school itself and multiple extracurriculars, it is too much.

Yet, he looks around and sees others doing more, and he worries it is not enough.

I understand.

Tonight, as we were waiting for our first course to arrive, I looked at him and said honestly, “You know, I think that’s great that you want to set some boundaries on your time and that you want to give yourself some space to really devote your best to what you’re doing. I get it. I can’t give less than 100% to things either without disappointing myself. I wish I knew at your age how to let some things go.”

His body has been rebelling lately. He says there are days he feels more like he is 70 than 17. I told him that maybe his body is telling him he is doing too much as well, that our bodies hold wisdom our minds don’t allow us to consider.

He understood.

He decided to talk to those in leadership in the two areas he is going to delay or take himself out of. His initial concerns about what they might think of him somewhat assuaged by the assurances that it is likely they will understand, and by the reminder that those who truly know him and those who truly love him are there for him because of who he is, not anything he does.

We had a really good birthday dinner. He was able to enjoy the food and come back to himself. He was relieved. I am grateful.

But most of all, I am reminded at how much I have to learn from my children and from mothering.

I have felt so much of what he is feeling recently, so much of not wanting to let anyone down but feeling so limited in time, energy & spirit, that I am, in effect, letting everyone down. I am not capable of giving less than my best. I can’t fight against that.

So I have to do less.

Take things off my plate so that I can enjoy the feast that is in front of me.

Trust that people will understand when balls and plates and activities drop.

Trust that those who love me do so because of who I am and not what I do.

We are on parallel journeys, my son and I, to accept our own humanity, the limitations of our time and energy, and to make wiser choices that allow us to remember who we are, instead of trying to be all things to all people.

We understand.

We are very much imperfect, but we are trying.

We are in it together.

And we are well loved.

Holding Still, Holding Space, Holding Up, Holding On

Holding Still

It is silent for a brief moment

The vague hum of music in the distance

I am still

I breathe deeply

Groucho (my dog) stirs

I am remembering

I am feeling

I am alone

For a brief moment

A moment frozen in time

And then gone

Holding Space

The unthinkable keeps happening

People I love continue to suffer

There is harm everywhere

But also hope

Sometimes in stillness in the space between

There is redemption

I create space

I hold space

For better

For all of us

Holding Up

How am I?

I am not really

But somehow I continue


Propped up by community

Reminding me we all deserve more

Holding On

Just barely

But always

To the good

For others

Moving towards the light

For myself

I continue

Past, Present, Future

28 years ago, my mom died.

Since then, life has never, of course, been the same.

And this date, February 3, has never been the same.

Some years, it is easier than others.

This year, it has been, in the small hours of the morning, easier than others.

Today, I am miles from home, but I am also home in my heart.

I am years from where I was 28 years ago, much closer to my mother’s age than my age then.

I am someone I hope she would have been proud of; I am someone who is striving to heal us both; I am someone who embodies her courage, her hopes, and her fears.

I am her daughter.

Today, I am thinking about the past and also about a future.

Today, I am living in an abundant present.

Today, I am present to the hope of healing, to the power of community, to the abounding love that surrounds me wherever I am in the world.

I am grateful, even as I remain present to the longing for my time with her.

Today, I will breathe and be. I will take in the joy and beauty around me and partake in it as I know she would have wanted for me. I will be kind to myself and remember to show myself the grace for my humanity that I would show a million others.

Today, I will keep her in my heart, alongside so many that I love and am holding.

I am ready for today.